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BI training key to successful pervasive business intelligence projects

You’re breathing a sigh of relief because the hard work of your business intelligence (BI) project appears to be over. You began by carefully evaluating BI vendors, keeping business users involved in every step of the evaluation process. Based on the rankings, you selected the BI tool that best fit your company’s needs. The vendor came in and conducted some training on how to use its technology.

Now you’ve deployed the software to all the business managers and workers – hundreds of them – who will be using it. Time to relax, right?

But then you discover that something is wrong. Despite all the work and all the money you’ve spent to buy the software licenses and deploy the technology, very few people are actually using the new BI tool. In fact, most of the intended users are still relying on (gasp!) their Excel spreadsheets to do reporting and analysis. Aargh!

That clearly is not the desired outcome of a pervasive business intelligence rollout aimed at extending the use of BI tools enterprise-wide. So what went wrong? Upon closer examination, it becomes evident that the training did not hit the mark. Sure, the users learned what buttons to click to make the software work. But they didn’t learn how to use it to become more effective at their jobs. As a result, the natural inclination for many is to ignore the BI application and stick with what they know: Excel.

To help you prevent that scenario from coming true at your company, here are some common BI training pitfalls that can threaten the success of pervasive BI deployments, and recommendations for how you can avoid them:

Pitfall 1: Focusing too much on the BI tool itself. BI training is often focused too heavily on the functionality of the software that’s being deployed. In particular, this is a common problem when BI vendors do the training. That isn’t surprising: It’s their technology, and they want to show off every cool capability that it has to offer.

But the data examples they use are usually pretty simple – too simple. I’ve been to clients where the business users are experts in the inner workings of their BI application – they can demonstrate all of its advanced features. But they still don’t know how to apply the tool to complicated real-life data. There’s a learning gap.

Recommended approach: Using a BI tool is only part of what people on the receiving end of a pervasive BI deployment need to learn. They also need to be trained on how to work with it in the context of the data that they use to do their jobs. Otherwise, they just won’t be able to see how the BI software is going to help them.

BI vendors may not be the best choices for teaching the principles of BI and how it can be applied to an individual company’s unique situation. And although the people teaching vendor-sponsored classes are quite knowledgeable about their products, they may not have many years of real-world data warehousing and BI experience to draw upon in their teaching. An independent expert can help fill that gap.

Also, to really hammer home the concepts of BI, it’s best to customize your training. I find that clients learn best when they have a workshop using their company’s own data as part of their training, so they can really focus on how they’re going to put the BI software to use. Once they see how it can be used to tackle the real-life business problems they’re trying to solve, they usually “get it.”

Pitfall 2: Training users too early. Many companies think they’re being proactive by offering training weeks or even months before the business users will actually start using BI tools. The problem is that the users are likely to forget much of what they learn by the time they need to put their knowledge into action.

And what happens when people can’t remember how to use the new software? Or when it takes too long to get anything done because they’re re-learning as they go? You guessed it: They’re going to revert to their tried-and-true spreadsheets because they at least know how to get the results they’re used to seeing from Excel. Meanwhile, you’re prolonging the life of another data silo.

Recommended approach: It’s best to start with a short training session close to the time the BI tool is scheduled to go into use. This could even be kept to a half day and could just provide a limited overview of the software’s functionality. Even though it’s just an overview, however, the training should still use the company’s own data, not generic information.

After the initial training session, business users should be encouraged to try out the BI technology and get completely comfortable using it with actual data well before their bosses start asking them for reports. They’re going to want to make a good first impression (and you’re going to want them to), but some practice is necessary before that can happen. Just have someone ready to hold their hands if needed. Detailed follow-on training should then be made available for the users who really need it.

Pitfall 3: Treating business users like IT people. The same BI tool is going to look different depending on your perspective. IT professionals tend to focus on a software product’s bells and whistles. Business users, on the other hand, are usually just looking to do their jobs.

As a pervasive BI deployment proceeds, users want to know how the technology that’s being rolled out can accomplish the same tasks they’re now getting done with Excel and how it will help them do their jobs faster and better. Most of them couldn’t care less about the “cool” technical features of BI software that IT is so hyped about.

Recommended approach: Before starting a training program, get a complete understanding of the software features that business users actually need, and then train them on that functionality. It’s OK to give them an overview of the entire BI tool, but focus on what they specifically will be using to do their jobs.

One way to do this is to first engage some of your power users. Get them to look at the tool and give you feedback on which functions are most useful and which ones aren’t needed. Then you should follow the “less is more” approach when it comes to training the rest of your users. If you overwhelm them with mind-numbing talk about features that they don’t need, the useful capabilities may be forgotten.

Poor training is a sure-fire way for companies to undermine their BI efforts. By following these recommendations, you should be able to make BI more pervasive in your organization and move closer to realizing its full potential for producing business benefits and competitive advantages.

About the author: Rick Sherman is the founder of Athena IT Solutions, a Stow, Mass.-based consulting firm that provides data warehouse and business intelligence consulting, training and vendor services. In addition to having more than 20 years of experience in the business, Sherman is a published author of more than 50 articles, an industry speaker, an Information Management Innovative Solution Awards judge and an expert contributor to both SearchBusinessAnalytics.com and SearchDataManagement.com. Sherman can be found blogging at The Data Doghouse and can be reached at rsherman@athena-solutions.com.


This was first published in March 2010

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